Four tips on effectiveness magic, including a lesson from David Blaine

—A popular Cannes presentation by three of the industry’s best known effectiveness experts, got Kevin Keane thinking about some suggestions of his own—

One the most discussed presentations at Cannes Lions back in June was about advertising effectiveness by three of the industry’s most respected experts Tom Roach, Les Binet and Grace Kite.

Roach followed up the talk—called “The 3rd Age of Effectiveness”—with an article last month summarizing the key points that was headlined “Attention’s the problem, creativity’s the answer—as ever.”

I think the talk and the article got a lot of attention because effectiveness is, after all, one of the most critical considerations for every marketer and ad agency in the industry. Speaking for myself, as someone whose work is entirely focused on advertising effectiveness, it was particularly intriguing for me, and it sparked some of my own thoughts and ideas which I wanted to share.

First, a quick overview of some of the key takeaways from Roach, Binet and Kite:

  • We have a problem with attention: 85% of all ads fail to achieve the 2.5 seconds or more of active attention required to impact brand memory and build mental availability.
  • Each platform has its own “Attention Code” of sorts, based on why people are on the platform and what they’re there to see. Brands must create for that platform based on its unique Attention Code.
  • Attention matters a lot, but so does emotion. Roach cited System 1’s research on Meta and Pinterest that says that high emotion ads are much more likely to drive brand awareness or brand lift.
  • Creators earn more attention because they’ve mastered the fundamentals of their platform.

With all due respect to Roach, Binet and Kite, I’d like to suggest three additions / expansions to their discussion and one new idea:

1) Each new media channel must be considered in isolation AND in terms of its impact on all other channels

Ever seen a toddler try to swipe away a video on a TV? While they eventually learn the differences between screens and devices, the behaviour speaks to a bigger phenomenon—consumer expectations set in one media channel bleed into expectations in other media.

Let’s consider the impact of YouTube on viewing habits.

The reality is, even if we don’t want to admit it, TV, cinema and other so-called “high attention environments” are all “skippable” when we have mobile phones in hand.

In just a few seconds we’ll make our minds up whether an ad is worth our attention. If it isn’t, we go to our mobile.

In the TV vs digital debate that has pervaded the industry for the last decade or so, one of the big misses from the TV industry has been a lack of education on how to build effective TV ads for a new landscape.

Whether through the complacency that comes with dominance, or a feeling that with 70 years of experience building TV ads, we already know how to create for TV (as Roach suggested in his article), TV execs have failed to fully grasp how changing media consumption habits have had an impact on attention spans.

Roach talked about this, pointing to the research from YouTube Creative Works to back his point. Ads with a “traditional story arc” (commonly found on television) with a lead-in, build, climax/big reveal, offer and then branding are twice as likely to be bottom performers on YouTube than those that deploy what YouTube calls the “emerging story arc,” which starts high, shows subtle brand cues, contains an unexpected shift, then multiple peaks, and then more story for those who want it.

The crisis in creativity that the IPA, Binet and Field, Orlando Wood of System 1, and others have written about extensively may just as easily be explained by an underlying change in consumer expectations of media after the mass adoption of the social media/iPhone tech.

The timing checks out (more or less): Decades of experience building ad for television during its uncontested reign as the preeminent video medium doesn’t count for a whole lot when new video media options challenge TV’s supremacy and change consumer expectations of the format.

Implication: Brands and planners must consider how, over the medium and long term (which is really where we’re at now with digital), consumer expectations of all/any media change with the introduction of any new media platform.

2) The importance of brand and creator reputation and fame

We have more patience and time for the brands we love—ones with a reputation for great content and experiences.

I’ll watch all Nike soccer advertising (the FIFA Women’s World Cup series are pure class), and I watched all eight minutes of Apple’s latest Underdogs spot because the first three in the series were great.

This phenomenon—call it the Reputation-Attention multiplier—goes beyond fame and usage and allows brands and creators to use different forms of storytelling.

Some of these storytelling forms are intrinsic to the craft of the creator, but more importantly for our purposes, they can transfer from one platform to another with reasonable ease and minimal adaptation.

Let’s look at an example from outside the world of advertising to illustrate this point. Take a look at this video of a brilliant David Blaine trick (and an amusingly amazed Harrison Ford) and then review the tracking chart below it.

Blaine has a strong reputation for awe-inspiring magic. Because of this, he’s earned the continued attention and engagement of viewers, which allows him in turn to take his time and deliver a strong pay off.

This isn’t a classic YouTube story arc—the spikes in memory store activation paced throughout suggests it’s more of a slow build to an emotional finale—but it crushes it anyway, delivering a payoff brands can only dream of. Blaine can do that because he’s David Blaine.


Implication: We’re not saying become master illusionists, but brands should focus on becoming entertainers, building a reputation for great content that consumers seek out. Once you have that reputation, consumers are willing and receptive to different kinds of advertising and content from you.

3) Attention can be manipulated with clever media planning

Roach, Binet and Kite claim creativity is the the answer to the attention problem. I’d like to add that creativity can be helpful in media as well as advertising.

Using research conducted with Brainsights and Google, Initiative extended the attention-getting view time of its longer-form client advertising on YouTube by optimizing the use of its six second bumpers. Media orthodoxy was—and in many cases, still is—to run long-form ads first in the media plan before supplementing with shorter spots. But our research revealed that the opposite was more effective for attention on YouTube: placing six-second bumpers before the longer form spots.

This had the effect of manufacturing familiarity through bumper priming—creative storytelling through clever media planning is a tactic proven to extend attention.

Similar effects have been found in broadcast brand integrations.

Conventional wisdom (and practice) is that there’s no difference to where “billboards” are placed relative to a brand’s ad in the TV pod. Billboards referring to brief messages between five and 10 seconds long, such as “this programme is brought to you by.”

Sometimes they’re placed leading into a pod, often followed by an ad from the brand to which it refers. But sometimes they’re placed leading back into the programming, preceded by an brand from the brand to which it refers.

Our research shows brands benefit much more from having their advertising follow a billboard, rather than precede it. In other words, the best billboard placement is leading into the pod, following by an ad for the brand. This approach translates into double digit gains of attention, emotional connection and memory encoding versus ads not preceded by the billboard.

It’s important to note that the YouTube and broadcast integration findings are not matters of frequency. These insights control for frequency. Think of it like priming a gas pump before starting an engine—getting a bit of fuel into the minds of consumers.

Implication: Brands and agencies should be thinking about ways to “hack” attention not only with better storytelling, but with better and more clever media laydowns, including asset sequencing in platforms and programs.

4) 2.5 seconds, and the role of sound

Both Byron Sharp of Ehrenberg-Bass and Mike Follett of eye tracking experts Lumen have questioned whether 2.5 seconds of attention is required to build memory.

I don’t know enough about the methodology of the research referenced by Roach to come down on one side or the other of this claim.

But what I often find omitted in the attention discussion is the role of sound, and this is the big omission in Roach’s otherwise fantastic summary (in fairness, he does briefly mention the emotional role of music).

And new sonic branding research conducted with Radio CBS reveals powerful and instantaneous attention-memory linkage—the 2.5 seconds of attention required to build memory may rest on the definition of build.

But memory is “built” by establishing and refreshing linkages, a point often stressed by the Ehrenberg-Bass crew.

It’s not a stretch then to understand why jingles—particularly the famous/familiar—are so powerful: they instantaneously refresh the brand association and memory.

And it occurs inside the first two seconds of aural exposure, as measured by brain wave activity related to memory store activation.

Those of a certain vintage who grew up in my home province can likely complete “Good things grow ______” with near-robotic automation. (Answer: “in Ontario”).

The jingle from Foodland Ontario has been heard so many times that we need only hear the first few notes to have it refresh associations, and refreshing memory structures is a critical role of ads.

There are countless other examples that would challenge the 2.5 second attention requirement for memory development (assuming that refreshing is part of this study).

I suspect that if McDonald’s simply played their Bah dah bah bah bah as an audio ad, that alone would be enough to refresh memory associations, such is the strength of that sonic sting.

Implication: For attention metrics to move forward from “human viewability” into all forms of attention, sound must be meaningfully integrated.

So, what does this mean for marketers? Four implications in summary:

  1. Monitor consumer media developments to understand channels in isolation, and in terms of the expectation changes from consumers of how all media ought to behave.
  2. Focus on being a bad ass brand that people want to tune into to benefit from the reputation-attention multiplier.
  3. Get creative with media to extend attention, and its resulting, higher-order benefits of emotion and memory.
  4. Get serious about sonic branding, and revisit jingles to own an earworm.